“Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath”

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“Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath”

by al-Mutanabbi


A classical Arabic panegyric ode, composed and presented in Arabic (as Ala qadri ahli al-azmi ta’ al-aza’imu) in 954; published in English in 1965.


The ode cetebratas the victory of the prince of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah ai-Harndani, over the Byzantine army, a feat that led to the reconquest of al-Hadath fortress.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

Al-Mutanabbi is one of the most celebrated poets in the Arabic literary tradition. He was born Ahmad ibn al-Husayn in the city of Kufah, Iraq, in 915, then traveled around the Muslim world for most of his life. As a young boy, al-Mutanabbi spent time with the Bedouins of Samawa, a region between Kufah in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. The Bedouins were believed to have spoken the purest form of Arabic, and al-Mutanabbi’s sojourn with them helped him develop a firm command of the language, a skill that later in life filled him with great pride. At the end of 928, al-Mutanabbi moved to Baghdad, then to Syria in hopes of pursuing a career as a panegyrist, or writer who creates praise poetry for a patron. After spending some time wandering through Syria to no avail, a frustrated al-Mutanabbi organized a rebellion, which “must have been political as well as religious” (Blachère, p. 769). The poet allegedly became known as al-Mutanabbi (literally, “the person who claimed to be a prophet”) after the rebellion. But in the end, al-Mutanabbi and his followers were defeated and the poet was jailed. Around 937, after two years in prison, al-Mutanabbi resumed his travels and his career as a panegyrist. He moved from one patron to another, slowly building his reputation but not attaining real fame until 948, when he associated himself with the emir (prince) of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah (d. 967). Becoming Sayf al-Dawlah’s foremost court poet, al-Mutanabbi composed some of his finest odes in praise of this emir and his military encounters with the Byzantines. After nine years in Sayf al-Dawlah’s court, the poet left Aleppo, moving to Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in hopes of settling at the court of a new patron. His travels ended abruptly in 965 when he was killed under mysterious circumstances. Though his life was cut short, his poems have endured, especially those of his golden period at Sayf al-Dawlah’s court. Among the most famous, “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” glorifies the emir’s bravery and victory, and thereby confirms his legitimacy as the rightful Islamic ruler of Aleppo.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

Arabs versus the Byzantines

The “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” describes one episode—the 954 battle of al-Hadath—that was part of a much larger history of conflict between the Arab Muslims and the Christian Byzantines. After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 and his trusted friend Abu Bakr (d. 634) became the Muslim leader, a period of challenges ensued. These challenges posed a threat to Muhammad’s unification of the Arabian Peninsula. Rebelling after Muhammad’s death, some tribes balked at the new leadership; Abu Bakr dealt firmly with the renegades, managing to subjugate all of Arabia within a year. He subsequently sent troops to Syria, which was then under the control of the Byzantines, and to Iraq, which was part of the Sasanid Empire. His successor, Umar (d. 644), continued the Muslim campaigns in Syria and Iraq, scoring a great victory in 636, completely destroying the Byzantine army in Syria in the great battle of Yarmuk. By 644 most of Syria and Egypt had been wrested from the Byzantines and incorporated into the newly emergent Islamic Empire.

Meanwhile, the Arab armies fought the Sasanid Empire for control of Iraq, securing a victory that led to the complete destruction of the Sasanid Empire. The Byzantine Empire, however, remained a threat. Bolstered by its richest and most densely inhabited provinces—Anatolia and the Balkans—the Byzantines engaged in nearly continuous border warfare with the Arabs, always threatening to wrest lost territories back from them. Arab victories over the Byzantines thus amounted to insecure triumphs. At the border of the Arab Empire, there was a frontier of contested lands; the Byzantines in effect constituted “a permanent barrier to [Arab] expansion” (Lapidus, p. 39). It was a rivalry that would continue until the Muslim Ottomans, led by Mehmet II, conquered the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1453 and the Byzantine Empire collapsed. (The fallen city of Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, would become the capital of the Ottoman Empire.) It is the period preceding the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, an era replete with attacks and counterattacks, that is the temporal context for the ode featured here; centering on the battle of al-Hadath, it highlights just one example of many such incidents on the Arab-Byzantine frontier.

The conflict between Arabs and other Muslims on one side and Byzantines on the other had been going on for centuries (roughly the seventh to the fifteenth century). During the Umayyad caliphate (661–750) and the first century of the Abbasid caliphate (750–861), the Arab armies were mostly on the offensive. They besieged Constantinople more than once, attacking Byzantine lands and conducting the famous campaign described by Abu Tammam in his “Ode on the Conquest of Amorium” (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Later the Abbasid caliphate grew weak and decentralized; although provincial governors declared allegiance to the Abbasid caliph, their deference was more symbolic than real. They exercised independent power within their provinces. The Byzantines, taking advantage of the decentralized nature of the domain, attacked the Arab frontiers, whereupon the provincial governors rallied their forces to combat the attackers. One such governor, Sayf al-Dawlah al-Hamdani, won wide renown for his military confrontations against the Byzantines, thanks largely to al-Mutanabbi’s poetic accounts.

The Hamdanid state in northern Syria

In northwestern Syria, in the city of Aleppo and its environs, Sayf al-Dawlah al-Hamdani established an independent emirate known as the Hamdanid state. Sayf al-Dawlah founded the state in 944, when he entered Aleppo to defend its borders from Byzantine attacks. He himself would prove to be its pre-eminent ruler, his reputation intimately tied to his military prowess.

Overall Sayf al-Dawlah fought more than 40 battles against the Byzantines, with mixed results. Although he initiated some successful raids, his lack of resources forced him to adopt a generally defensive strategy. He reinforced the towns most vulnerable to assault and rebuilt those destroyed by the Byzantines. Given limited military and political power, his approach varied greatly from that of the earlier Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, whose armies went on the offensive, even besieging the Byzantines in their capital.

There were two stages to Sayf al-Dawlah’s conflict with the Byzantines. The first, from 947 to 957, was marked by his victories inside and outside his domain. But the second stage, from 961-2 to 967, saw him suffer military and personal setbacks. The Byzantines temporarily occupied his capital, he lost the region of Cilicia, internal rebellion plagued his domain, and paralysis struck one side of his body. His earlier victories endured, though, through the words of writers who had become part of his court circle.

According to historian Marius Canard, “The brilliance which [Sayf al-Dawlah] conferred on the emirate of Aleppo by his military victories and by his cultural influence, and through the poets and the prose-writers of what has been called the ’circle of Sayf al-Dawla,’ has made him one of the most famous rulers of Islam” (Canard, p. 129). Other members of this circle, along with al-Mutanabbi, include the poet Abu Firas, the prose writer Abu Bakr al-Khuwarizmi, and the philosopher al-Farabi. It was indeed an illustrious court.

Al-Hadath fortress

Today the fortress and town of al-Hadath no longer exist, but they once sat in the province of Antioch, in a plain at the foot of the Taurus Mountains, near three lakes on the upper Aksu River in what is now southern Turkey. For many years, al-Hadath was the “center stage” for the conflict between the Arabs and the Byzantines because of its location on the frontier. The Arabs conquered it during the reign of the caliph Umar (634-44). Subsequently—under the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah—they used it as a base from which to invade Byzantine territory. The town was sacked and


Throughout the medieval period and up to the early twentieth century, Arab Muslim rulers prided themselves on the presence of court poets, who regularly praised the accomplishments of their patrons. The most famous poet/patron relationship in Islamic history is that of al-Mutanabbi and Sayf al-Dawfah, The poet admired the prince, accompanied and fought at his side in various battles, and wrote some of his finest verse in praise of the emir. It is said that he felt genuinely tied to his patron, “who was in his eyes the personification of the ideal Arab chief, brave, magnanimous, and generous” (Blachère, p. 770). In return, Sayf al-Dawlah, who recognized the importance of poetry, showered al-Mutanabbi with generous gifts. Over the years, however, court intrigues strained the relationship. No longer feeling safe, al-Mutanabbi fled to Damascus in 957, abruptly ending what was to become the most celebrated association between a poet and a patron in the history of Arabic literature.

burned by the Byzantines during the Abbasid caliphate, then rebuilt by the Arabs. Caliph Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), who rebuilt it, maintained a strong army there. Like their predecessors, the Abbasids used the town as a strategic base from which to attack Byzantine territory. In 950, a few years after Sayf al-Dawlah became the ruler of northern Syria, the Byzantine army seized al-Hadath and leveled its fortifications. Four years later Sayf al-Dawlah began his campaign to reconquer the town and rebuild the fortress.

The battle of al-Hadath

Four years after the Byzantines seized the fortress, Sayf al-Dawlah achieved a major victory that would lead to the reconquest of al-Hadath. Sayf al-Dawlah defeated a large Byzantine army, capturing and imprisoning many Byzantine generals, including the son of the Byzantine commander Bardas Phocas. In various editions of al-Mutanabbi’s diwan (collected poems), the “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” is introduced by an anecdote that provides an account of the battle. (Compilers or commentators customarily included such anecdotes to introduce a major ode, particularly those on military encounters.) Translated here, the anecdote introducing al-Mutanabbi’s ode relates the details of the battle from the Arab perspective.

Sayf al-Dawlah went to the fortress of al-Hadath to [re]build it …. He reached it on [a] Wednesday, in the year [954]. He began building the foundation [of the fortress] and digging the base with his own hands. On Friday, Ibn al-Fuqqas [Bardas Phocas] took the field against [Sayf al-Dawlah] with about fifty thousand cavalry and infantry. The fighting took place on Monday … from morning until afternoon. Then Sayf al-Dawlah attacked him with five hundred of his army, winning the battle, killing three thousand Byzantine men, and taking many captives. He killed some of them and remained there until he had rebuilt al-Hadath fortress—placing the last stone with his own hand …. So, on the same day, [al-Mutanabbi] composed this ode to him in al-Hadath.

(al-Yaziji, p. 202; trans. M. al-Mallah)

Sayf al-Dawlah’s control of al-Hadath was short-lived, however. In 957, only three years after reconquering it, the Byzantines won it back, after which al-Hadath no longer figured as a key site in the military history of the region.

The Poem in Focus

The contents—Part 1

The first part of the ode (lines 1 to 6 below) defines its overall theme—that the high rank attained by Sayf al-Dawlah and his legitimacy as ruler are based on his bravery in battle. At the start the poem speaks of character traits that pertain to Sayf al-Dawlah’s victory at al-Hadath. The first line implies that his military deeds are the essence of nobility and resolve; the second line indirectly describes the man whose high rank is at the heart of this poem—Sayf al-Dawlah. Part 1 goes on to praise the emir’s courage and lofty aspirations as well as his high expectations for his army. It concludes with lines that depict Sayf al-Dawlah’s power and ability to supply the eagles of the desert with fresh meat (enemy dead).

Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath—Part 1

1. Man’s resolutions are in measure with his will; his noble deeds in measure with his noble heart.

2. Petty affairs appear grave in the eyes of the petty, while grave matters appear petty in the eyes of the great.

3. Sayf al-Dawlah [now] imposes his aspiration upon his army when before even vast armies could not bear [such aims]!

4. And he demands that his men be as [courageous] as he is, and that is more [courage] than even lions can claim.

5. Birds that live long, young and old desert eagles, offer [their lives] as ransom for his weaponry.

6. Had these birds been created without claws, it would not have harmed them, for the blades and hilts of his swords [provide carrion] for them. (al-Mutanabbi, “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath,” in Diwan Abi al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi bi-sharh Abi al-Baqa al-Ukbari;. trans. M. Al-Mallah)

Part 2

In its second part (lines 7–38 below), the ode depicts the battle in four sections. The first section (lines 7–15) centers on the rebuilding of al-Hadath; the second (lines 16–19) on the Byzantine army; the third (lines 20–32) on Sayf al-Dawlah’s bravery in battle; and the fourth (lines 33–38) on the cowardice of the Byzantine general—the Domesticus (the title for Bardas Phocas). Initially this part announces Sayf al-Dawlah’s feat—his recovery of al-Hadath from the Byzantines and his rebuilding of it. Blood becomes foundational for the rebuilding: “Does al-Hadath the Red know its color, and does she know which of the two that watered her are the clouds?/Before [Sayf al-Dawlah] came, lightening clouds watered her, but when he marched close by, she was watered with [the blood of] skulls” (lines 7–8). The second section depicts the vast army the Byzantines assembled to fight Sayf al-Dawlah. “Their five-part [army] advances east and west, creating a rumbling of the ear” (line 18). Then comes a section that praises Sayf al-Dawlah’s bravery in battle, lauding him for distinguishing himself as a lion among men. The section describes the weapons and warriors, exploiting the fact that Sayf (the hero’s name) means “sword.” Not all men’s resolve and nobility are equal, and, by the same token, not all “swords” (i.e., men) are the same in the midst of battle: “Swords that could not cut shields and spears were cut down” (line 21). The distinction here is between swords that break and warriors who flee when the real battle starts, on one hand, and the genuine warrior, the Sayf/sword who cannot be destroyed like ordinary swords and who stays in battle without fleeing, on the other hand. Byzantine soldiers run from the fray, but the emir stands fast. Sayf al-Dawlah challenges death and fights without fear or hesitation. In an attempt to depict the emir as someone who has mythic, larger-than-life powers, the poet declares that Sayf al-Dawlah knows the unknown (in other words, fate) and defeats the Byzantine army by himself. His weapon of choice—the sword—requires hand-to-hand combat, unlike the spear, which is thrown from a distance. The play on the emir’s name continues—the key to victory is the sword, that is, Sayf al-Dawlah himself. The fourth section of Part 2 brings the battle scene to a close by describing how cowardly the Domesticus, the Byzantine leader, is. The image of him as fainthearted emerges in one of the poem’s most famous lines, which is based on the idea that receiving blows from the back means one is fleeing from the battle instead of facing the enemy: “On every day that the Domesticus advances [against Sayf al-Dawlah], his nape blames his face for advancing” (line 33 below).

Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath—Part 2

7. Does al-Hadath the Red know its color and does she know which of the two that watered her are clouds?

8. Before [Sayf al-Dawlah] came, lightening clouds watered her, but when he marched close by, she was watered with [the blood of] skulls.

9. He built her high while spears were clashing against each other, and the waves of death crashed around her.

10. It was as if she had gone mad, then became sane once more, after he hung [enemy] corpses [on her walls] like amulets.

11. She was fate’s prey, but you returned her to the religion [of Islam] by spears—and fate was forced to accept.

12. All that you take from the nights you take [with impunity], while they pay the price for whatever they take from you!

13. If what you intend is a verb in the future, it is accomplished in the perfect, before it can be negated.

14. And how do the Byzantines and the Russians hope to demolish [al-Hadath] when the stabber [Sayf al-Dawlah] is her foundation and pillars?

15. They tried to impose their rule on her, but death [in battle] ruled over them; the oppressed did not perish and the oppressor did not live.

16. They came to you trailing chain mail as if they were riding horses with no legs.

17. When they flash like lightning, you cannot tell their swords from them, for their robes and turbans are made of iron.

18. Their five-part [army] advances east and west, creating a rumbling of the earth that reaches the ears of the Gemini.

19. In it is gathered every tongue and nation, so only the translators understand what is said.

20. By God, what a time! Its fire smelted away base metals, till only cutting weapons and [men] brave [as] lions remained.

21. Swords that could not cut shields and spears were cut down, and heroes who could not clash [in combat] fled.

22. You stood up knowing that those who stood would die, as if you were in the eyelid of death while it was sleeping.

23. Heroes pass by you—bleeding and defeated—while your face is shining and your mouth is smiling.

24. You went beyond the limits of bravery and reason till people said that you have knowledge of fate.

25. You gathered the army’s two wings over the heart [of the enemy’s army], killing both hidden and fore-feathers.

26. With striking of skulls when victory is [still] distant, then striking the throats once victory has arrived.

27. You despised the Rudayni spears and threw them away until it seemed that the sword reviled the spear.

28. He who seeks [the doors] of illustrious victory must use as keys swords that are light yet cutting.

29. You dispersed them on Mount Uhaydib like dirhams scattered over a bride.

30. Your horses tread the birds’ nests on the mountaintop, increasing the food around the nests.

31. The eagle’s nestlings think that you brought their mother to visit, but in fact you led noble and strong steeds.

32. If these horses slip [while going up the mount], you make them crawl on their bellies like snakes ascending elevated land.

33. On every day that the Domesticus advances [against Sayf al-Dawlah], his nape blames his face for advancing.

34. Does [the Domesticus] not recognize the scent of the lion until he can taste it—[don’t] even cattle know the scent of the lion?

35. And the emir’s devastating attacks left [the Domesticus] bereft of his son, his son-in-law, and his grandson.

36. He came to thank his friends for his escaping the swords’ edges, for their skulls and wrists preoccupied the swords.

37. He understands the sound of Mashrafi swords when they strike his friends, even though swords speak a foreign language.

38. He is pleased with what he has given you-not out of ignorance, for a defeated man who escapes from you counts himself a winner.

(“al-Hadath”; trans. M. Al-Mallah)

Part 3

The final part (lines 39–46) concludes the poem with a direct madih (panegyric) of the qualities that make the emir a legitimate leader. This part emphasizes Sayf al-Dawlah’s victory and his defense of the community. The victory reinforces not just this leader’s legitimacy but also that of his religion; as a protector of Islam, Sayf al-Dawlah has had the benefit of God’s support, unlike the Byzantines, whose Christian beliefs, as the poet sees it, are wrong. Besides breathing new life into the polity through his victory, the emir has also inspired al-Mutanabbi’s ode. The final few lines return to the subjects of war and victory while reaffirming the qualities that make Sayf al-Dawlah the community’s legitimate leader. He is a sword always battling the enemy, never sheathed, forever leveling blows that hit their mark. Certainly, asserts the final line, God will always protect Sayf al-Dawlah, for his presence guarantees that strikes against the enemy will forever persist.

39. And you are not [merely] a king routing another king, but you are Islam defeating Polytheism.

40. All of Adnan, not only Rab‘ah, are honored because of him, and the whole world, not only the province of Antioch, is proud of him.

41. Yours is the praise in the pearls, mine is the utterance, for you provide the [pearls], and I string them together.

42. I ride into battle on the steed that you bestowed on me [and fight valiantly], so no blame falls on me, and you do not regret [your gift]—

43. A steed that runs swiftly when the battle-din reaches its ears.

44. O you, who are the sword that is never sheathed, your power is undoubted and nothing can ward off your blow.

45. Let the striking of heads, the glory and high rank and those who place their hope in you and Islam rejoice because you are safe!

46. And why wouldn’t God protect your blades’ two edges as long as He can, for with you, the splitting of the enemy’s skulls will never cease!

(“al-Hadath”; trans. M. Al-Mallah)

Echoing pre-Islamic poetry

Arabs and Byzantines engaged in numerous battles for control of al-Hadath fortress, one of the most famous, though not necessarily the most historically important, being the battle of al-Hadath during Sayf al-Dawlah’s time. As noted, the victory had no long-term effect. Yet the poem made this battle one of the best-remembered of the Arab-Byzantine conflict.

Critics debate the function of odes that concern military conflict. Some contend that the writers “described heroism and horsemanship to create poetic documentation of war” (al-Mahasini, p. 230; trans. M. Al-Mallah). But while odes include battle descriptions, these may or may not coincide with historical realities and such poems have other functions as well. Beyond a simple declaration of facts, the ode renders a political interpretation of them in the pursuit of an ultimate goal—in this case, to claim legitimacy for Sayf al-Dawlah based on his military victory.

Instead of unfolding in a linear narrative that tells the “story” from beginning to end, al-Mutanabbi’s ode invokes the theme of blood vengeance in pre-Islamic poetry. The three parts of his ode correspond to the three stages in sacrifice rites: “entry into the sacrifice; the sacrifice itself; and the rites of exit” (Stetkevych, The Mute Immortals Speak, p. 56). Part 1 marks the entry into the sacrifice through the image of an emir who habitually provides eagles with fresh meat. Part 2 depicts the battle, particularly the defeat of the Byzantines and thus the spilling of their blood (the sacrifice itself). Finally, in praising Sayf al-Dawlah for the victory, Part 3 provides an exit from the sacrifice.

In the tradition of pre-Islamic poetry, “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” invokes the theme of blood vengeance as well as sacrifice. On the literal level, the imagery of blood affirms the death and defeat of the enemy, an important achievement given the tense circumstances on the borders during the period. Victory meant life and a continued, if threatened, existence; defeat meant death and destruction. On the symbolic level, the themes of blood vengeance and sacrifice elevate Sayf al-Dawlah’s achievement into the realm of myth. There was an ethic of blood vengeance in pre-Islamic Arabia that called upon a tribe to exact retribution for its dead by slaying a person of equal stature from the tribe of the aggressor. Poets of the avenging tribe used the motif of spilling the blood of the aggressor (or an equivalent) as a metaphor for the revival and immortality of their own tribe and their fallen warriors. In much the same way, al-Mutanabbi depicts Sayf al-Dawlah as possessing mythical powers that enable him to revive and sustain his community by defeating the enemy, expressed through the image of spilling the enemy’s blood. The emir’s feat—he preserved the polity—allows the poet to immortalize the emir by celebrating his victory in verse—“a remarkable reversion to the tribal function of the pre-Islamic poet” (Gibb, p. 85). By echoing the three stages, al-Mutanabbi moves away from a mere historical account and attempts to transform into myth the reconquest and rebuilding of al-Hadath. His ode mythicizes Sayf al-Dawlah’s reconsecration of the fortress after it has been defiled by Byzantine rule and construes the victory as “proof that the emir deserves to rule.

Sources and literary context

It is reported that al-Mutanabbi often accompanied Sayf al-Dawlah into battle and fought at his side, and that this first-hand experience contributed to his verses’ vivid battle descriptions. Perhaps boosting his own status, al-Mutanabbi mentions his fighting alongside Sayf al-Dawlah in some of his odes. In “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath,” he implies that Sayf al-Dawlah and his victory have inspired him to compose fine poetry (“Yours is the praise in the pearls, mine is the utterance, for you provide the [pearls], and I string them together”—line 41). He also mentions his participation in battle on the steed Sayf al-Dawlah gave him (“I ride into battle on the steed that you bestowed on me [and fight valiantly]—line 42”). Though the poet does not say explicitly that he fought at al-Hadath, this poetic mention, coupled with the anecdote that precedes the ode, suggests that he probably witnessed the battle. According to the anecdote, al-Mutanabbi recited the ode at the site of the fortress and not back in Aleppo.

The poet mentions Sayf al-Dawlah several times throughout the poem, but just as there is no way to verify the poet’s own presence at the battle, one cannot verify the accuracy of his descriptions of the emir’s prowess during the fight. Sayf al-Dawlah’s victory at the battle of al-Hadath is documented by many historians. However, other than the anecdote that introduces the poem, there is no detailed account of either the battle or of how Sayf al-Dawlah waged it.

“Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” belongs to the genre of Arabic panegyric or praise poetry, known as qasidat al-madh. Considered the foundation of the entire Arabic literary tradition for more than 1,500 years, qasidat al-madh played a crucial role in sociopolitical and court culture up to the early twentieth century. Panegyrics bolstered the reputation of many Arab rulers. Odes in praise of military feats were common. “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” is one in a long list composed after a military encounter and one among many poems that al-Mutanabbi wrote after battles against the Byzantines. The subgenre, which dates back to pre-Islamic poetry, is sometimes referred to specifically as shi‘r al-harb (war poetry).


The second part of the poem, about the military encounter between Sayf al-Dawfah and the Byzantines, echoes the “sacrifice” stage of the blood vengeance ritual. Here blood is spilled, a sacrifice made. In fact, the practice of consecrating buildings by sprinkling water or blood, even sacrificing an animal or a human at the foundation for protection, is longstanding and widespread in the world at large. Below is a European example that testifies to the belief that sacrifice, especially of human blood, is beneficial, even necessary, for the stability of a building.

A Scottish legend tells that when Si Columba first attempted to build a cathedral on lona, the walls fell down as they were erected; he then received supernatural information that they would never stand unless a human victim was buried alive, and, in consequent, his companion, Oran, was Interred at the foundation of the structure.

(Westermarck, p. 462)

Al-Mutanabbi is often compared to Abu Tammam (d. 846) and al-Buhturi (d. 897), two other celebrated poets in the Abbasid period. “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” is in fact a descendant of Abu Tammam’s own tribute to Arab victory over the Byzantines—“Ode on the Conquest of Amorium.” Al-Mutanabbi was especially influenced by Abu Tammam’s conscious use of the highly rhetorical badi’ style and his departure from some poetic conventions. For instance, several times in his ode, al-Mutanabbi uses one of Abu Tammam’s favorite badi’ rhetorical devices: mutabaqah (antithesis, indicated in dark print below).

They tried to impose their will on her, but
  death [in battle] ruled over them;
The oppressed did not perish  and the
  oppressor did not live .
Their five part army advances east  and west ,
Creating a rumbling of the earth that reaches
  the ears of the Gemeni.
          (lines 15 and 18, al-Hadath; trans. M. Al-Mallah)

Al-Mutanabbi is furthermore credited with “blending the Arabian tradition of Abu Tammam with the smoothness and technical ingenuity of the “Iraqi school’” (Gibb, p. 91).

Like Abu Tammam before him, al-Mutanabbi’s poetry became the focus of intense debate. The fact that al-Mutanabbi, in the tradition of Abu Tammam, challenged many poetic conventions of his day created waves of both criticism and praise. Like his predecessor, al-Mutanabbi defied the literary status quo and so excelled in his craft that he provoked great controversy. Whatever the jealousies of his own day may have been, al-Mutanabbi has won renown for a more masterful blend of the pre-Islamic classical style and the later badi’ Abbasid style than any predecessor or poet of his own age.

Reception and impact

There is no direct evidence to tell us how al-Mutanabbi’s “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” was received in the court or by critics, though over time it would come to be regarded as one of his finest works. In early times, as already noted, al-Mutanabbi’s odes touched off a fierce debate between his admirers and his critics. In modern times, many focused their criticism on his acceptance of generous rewards in exchange for his panegyric poetry. Others idealized al-Mutanabbi and his relationship with Sayf al-Dawlah as the best possible example of a connection between a poet and a patron, their conviction being that al-Mutanabbi was sincere in his admiration and praise of Sayf al-Dawlah. Recent scholarship suggests otherwise:

The ideal poet-patron match is celebrated … above all in the relationship of Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, considered the last and the greatest of the classical poets … and Sayf al-Dawlah, the Hamdanid prince of Aleppo …. Although these two have been molded into a romanticized Arab ideological construct … the traditional sources nevertheless reveal an ultimate incompatibility between the two …. The tradition seems to place the blame for this primarily on the poet himself, accusing him of the sin of excessive pride …. But other anecdotes demonstrate Sayf al-Dawlah’s failure to defend al-Mutanabbi in the viciously competitive literary and poetic circles of his court.

(Stetkevych, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy, pp. 184-85)

Whatever debates may have raged over the poetry or practices of al-Mutanabbi, there has been no argument over his impact on later poets, who measured their talent against his. As the literary scholar Roger Allen notes, “al-Mutanabbi is certainly the strongest of the strong Arab poets, the anxiety of whose influence was felt by all those who came after him” (Allen, p. 90). After his death, it would become the highest compliment to call a poet “al-Mutanabbi” to signify that the person is following in the steps of the most esteemed Arab poet. His verse has won similar renown. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to “Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath” is that its first two lines have become “proverbial and as famous as their celebrated author” (Latham, p. 1).

—Majd Al-Mallah

For More Information

Allen, Roger. Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bianquis, Th. “Sayf Al-Dawla.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition. Vol. 9. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997.

Blachère, R. “Al-Mutanabbi.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition. Vol. 7. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993.

Canard, M. “Hamdanids.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition. Vol. 3. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986.

Gibb, H. A. R. Arabic Literature: An Introduction. 2d. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Latham, J. Derek. “Towards a Better Understanding of al-Mutanabbi’s Poem on the Battle of al-Hadath.” Journal of Arabic Literature 10 (1979): 1–22.

al-Mahasini, Zaki. Shi‘r al-Harb fi al-Adab al-Arabi fi al-Asrayn al-Umawi wa al-Abbasi ila Ahd Sayf al-Dawlah. Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1968.

al-Mutanabbi, Abu al-Tayyib. Dxwan Abi al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi bi Sharh al-Ukbari. Vol. 3. Beirut: Dar al Ma‘rifah, n.d.

Stetkevych, Suzanne. The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

_____. The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Westermarck, Edward. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan, 1906.

al-Yaziji, Nasif. Al-Arf al-Tayyib fi Shark Diwan Abi al-Tayyib. Vol. 2. Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1964.

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“Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath”

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“Ode on the Reconquest of al-Hadath”